The New Forest, Hampshire is one of my two favourite places to visit in the UK (the other being Brighton!). It really is a wonderful place for a UK getaway, whether that’s a week-long break or a weekend trip. Made up of a mix of pastureland, heath and forest, it’s a truly beautiful place to explore, as you visit the towns and villages dotted throughout the boundaries of the national park.
Appointed a royal forest by William I, it was an area used by nobility and royalty to host hunts, although those that lived there known as ‘commoners’ were given special rights including permission for their animals to freely graze the land. Still in place today, this is something that makes the New Forest such a unique place, as its free roaming ponies can be seen throughout the area and often can be found wandering along the towns’ and villages’ high streets!
Whatever the weather or time of year, the New Forest has a lot to offer, from country walks and animal parks through to indoor family attractions and historical sites. Here are seven of my favourite things to do in the New Forest whenever I visit.
Things to do in the New Forest
1 – Get back to nature
One of the most beautiful places in the UK, I think the biggest reason to visit the New Forest is to put on your walking boots and go exploring. Nothing beats breathing in that fresh country air as you take a walk over fields and heaths or wander through woodland. I’m also prone to a bad case of pony spotting whenever I come to the New Forest, and it’s wonderful how close you can get to these beautiful creatures when you’re out and about.
Can you stroke and feed the New Forest ponies?
There are around 3,000 New Forest ponies roaming freely in the area, and although you’re likely to have an encounter with them during your stay, remember that these guys are not tame so don’t trying to stroke or feed them! Also worth noting is that the animals of the New Forest have right of way on the roads and they’re often found wandering along the country lanes or grazing on roadside hedges, so always drive slowly and keep alert.
Accessible walking trails
Although it’s a walker’s heaven don’t think you have to be super fit to get back to nature here. There are many different kinds of walks available in the New Forest: long, short, flat, hilly and some also accessible to wheelchair users, which was really good to see. Simply do some research beforehand to find a walk that suits you.
As I can have issues with pain in my legs I chose the Tall Trees trail – a short, flat walk, scattered with benches where I could rest if needed. Not only was it a really enjoyable walk through the woods, it was also very interesting, with information points on the forest’s tallest trees and it even takes you past a crater formed by a bomb that fell during World War II!
The New Forest National Park Authority has an area of its website dedicated to information on over 80 walks you can take in the area, and even has route cards you can print out, so that’s a great place to start.
2 – Explore Buckler’s Hard
Buckler’s Hard is an 18th-century village turned museum. Found on the banks of Beaulieu River, it is where Nelson’s fleet was built.
Your journey starts in a modern museum that sets the story, with information on the village’s Montagu family, the ships built and used in the Battle of Trafalgar, and the sad story of the SS Persia, which was sunk by a German U-boat during WW1. From here you’re free to roam the village, look around the shipwright’s cottage and the village chapel and discover what life was like for villagers back in that time.
I found my time at Buckler’s Hard fascinating as it shares stories not just of the big events that happened, but of the local people’s (often mis-) adventures, loves and losses. Visiting in January, I found the place very quiet, which gave us a great opportunity to find out more from the staff who were more than happy to share their knowledge with us.
3 – Spend a day at Beaulieu
There’s so much to do at Beaulieu that it’s easy to spend a full day here exploring all its attractions! Often known as the National Motor Museum and also renowned for its World of Top Gear exhibition. If you’re not a car enthusiast don’t let that put you off as your entry ticket also gives you access to Beaulieu Abbey, Palace House, beautiful grounds and gardens and the secret army exhibition.
A lover of history, my highlights were the Abbey and Palace House; which was brought to life by the secret army exhibition that told the tale of Beaulieu being used as secret training establishment for special agents of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two. There were some amazing stories shared and fun anecdotes – for example recruiters were challenged with breaking into Palace House and proof of their success can be found on the large dining room table onto which they naughtily scratched their initials.
4 – Visit the towns of the New Forest
The New Forest is also home to some lovely towns and villages that are well worth a visit. Why not take the time to wander the high streets of places such as Lyndhurst, Ashhurst, Brockenhurst and Fordingbridge, visit the local shops and stop off for some tea and cake in a cute looking cafe?
5 – Eat locally sourced food at the region’s best restaurants
The New Forest is also known for some high quality eateries and is renowned for using locally sourced food. There are some wonderful choices available to you but from my experience two delicious options are Hotel Terravia in Woodlands and The Silver Hind in Sway.
I’ve also heard great things about The Pig in Brockenhurst, but not yet had the chance to dine there. This is because we discovered that you need to book ahead – really book ahead. On our final day we thought we’d try our luck and drove up the gravel path to The Pig only to discover they were fully booked for the next five weekends! I think that has to be one hell of a recommendation, no?
6 – Tour Ringwood Brewery
Just on the edge of the New Forest lies Ringwood, where you can find TripAdvisor’s no 1 recommendation for attractions in the region. Ringwood Brewery offers regular group tours of its plant, and although I’m not a beer drinker I have to say I had a really great time!
For around £8 your visit starts with a drink in the quaint country bar. I loved the glasses, which I was very excited to discover you can keep! While everyone enjoyed their drink (basically I snuck Justin mine after I’d had one sip!) we were told the history of Ringwood Brewery and how its creator started the concept of the microbrewery. From here we began our tour, where we were shown how each type of beer was made. The visit ends with a return to the open bar, where you’re invited to try out all the beers, and have as much as you want, before checking out the cool little shop before heading off on your way home.
As you can imagine, there was a very jolly atmosphere, and everyone on the tour had a good laugh getting to know each other – there was one group of lads that loved the tour so much it was their seventh visit!
7 – Visit Eling Tide Mill
The only fully working tide mill in the UK, Eling Tide Mill is something pretty unique. With a small team keeping it running, we had the place to ourselves during our visit, and got to speak to a young miller in training, who talked us through the mill’s history and its importance. He also gave me some great recipes to make using the flour they sell!
As it was quiet we were even allowed to help out by bagging up our very own bag of flour to buy, and it was great exploring all the levels of the mill and from the water’s edge up to the rafters all by ourselves.
Currently the mill is shut for renovation, but I can imagine it will offer an even better experience when it does reopen, so be sure to keep your eyes open for announcements.
You can find out more about visiting the New Forest www.thenewforest.co.uk.